Competency-based education (CBE) is an educational model that’s growing in popularity, and it has particular relevance for the field of human resources (HR).

Capella University has invested in a competency-based learning approach throughout the university, including the School of Business and Technology. Dr. Shelley Robbins, Senior Chair – Masters Business Programs, and Dr. Laura Sankovich, Faculty Chair – MBA Program, share more on how CBE is defined.

What is competency-based education?

According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), a competency is “a cluster of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) needed for effective job performance.” CBE focuses on acquiring and developing those characteristics, as opposed to the more traditional academic format, which focuses on credit hours and number of years, to gain a degree or certification.

“Traditionally, universities have not defined the expected abilities or outcomes developed by graduates, nor do they ensure abilities are learned, assessed, and acquired,” said Sankovich. “Educational impact is not easy to gauge.” But competency-based education’s focus on skills and abilities creates a different metric, one that’s easier to evaluate—and one that can immediately be of benefit to employers.

Why is CBE relevant to employers?

“Employers want employees who can hit the ground running,” said Sankovich. “Before they start the hiring process, they create a description of what they want in terms of those knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) in an ideal candidate. They know what skills they’re looking for.”

Robbins agreed. “They want to hire people with competencies,” she said. “At Capella, each HR class has defined competencies. The learners have a dashboard, or a competency map, that allows them to see what competencies they’re developing, and they can share that with potential employers.”

How does Capella deliver CBE?

“We break down each course into units that focus on specific skills or knowledge,” said Sankovich. “These units build relationships between the theoretical models in HR and business. We also do assessments to determine mastery.”

There is another delivery mechanism through Capella, as Robbins pointed out. “With our FlexPath option, students can master competencies on their own timeframe. It’s great for working professionals. We can help them acquire the competencies they seek for a new job, or to change jobs. There’s also an Assurance of Learning Assessment [offered by SHRM] for students without HR work experience, to demonstrate their mastery of competencies in HRM that they’ve gained through their coursework. Students who have already gained competencies through their work experience can use them to petition for credit through our Prior Learning Assessment process, and they can potentially get credit which could be applied to their degree.”

What competencies are taught in the HR programs at Capella? What skills will students develop that could be used in the workplace?

“We teach our students about the theories behind good HR practices,” Sankovich said, “but then they get to experience hands-on training through Capella’s CapraTek simulations in their HR courses. In these simulations, they use what they’ve learned to do various HR functions as if they were in the workplace already. They also go out into the field and observe people doing these jobs and learn about the pros and cons of different approaches and methods. This way, they learn real-world skills they must know to work in HR.”

Students will acquire knowledge in several key HR roles such as benefits and compensation, training and development, recruitment and staffing, and employment law, which are included in simulations. What’s more, they’re learning and experiencing these simulations from a faculty comprised entirely of HR scholars and practitioners. “Because we’re all scholar-practitioners, we understand both the theory and how it works in real life,” said Sankovich.


Capella offers the following human resources degree programs:

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